Note to readers: My Family and Other Globalizers is a weekly parenting column on bringing up global citizens.
Childbirth might be a biological norm, yet when I had my boys, there was little that had felt “natural” about the experience. Not physically, and certainly not psychologically. My body had been violated, given the entire football team of doctors and nurses poking at my nether regions. It was chewed at, quite literally, by an infant on the breast. Emotionally I’d been under extreme stress, compounded by the sleep deprivation. If anything, motherhood was an abrupt, almost violent, upending of the normal.
And yet for the 33 years before I had my first child, even as several aunties (and the occasional uncle) made solicitous inquiries about my child-bearing plans, no one had sat me down to discuss how traumatic it could be: not my mother, not my peers, not my doctors and not the strangers on the bus who made happy faces and clucking sounds when they caught sight of my swelling belly.
Wider societal messages – film and TV representations or advertisements – only signalled tenderness and warmth. It was all glowing mothers and cuddly babies, with scant sign of the blood and gore. In short: by failing to discuss the poo-soaked labour of motherhood, society conspires to set up mothers to fail.
There is less talk about preparing for the psychological and physical impact of motherhood in the public sphere than about black holes, and certainly the price of onions. It is why I write about parenting, despite the fact that in my “day” job I work as a foreign correspondent addressing matters of great power rivalry, wars, fiscal crises and high politics.
But in both practical and less tangible ways, being a mother has shaped how much time I have to work, to think, to be. My brain has been rendered prismatic (that’s “shattered” in less literary terms). It has lost single-beam focus. Motherhood has shaped the lens through which I look at the world and interpret it. And it has convinced me of the wrongness of the boundaries between the personal and the political, the domestic and the public that the public intellectual has long embodied.
In the past, there was a sense that if anything needed to be taught or learned about parenting, it would be transmitted within families from mother to mother. I’m not sure that this was ever an adequate methodology, but in twenty-first century India, it is glaringly insufficient.
Economic liberalization has altered the material and social circumstances of the middle classes. Increasing numbers of people do not live with constant access to their mothers. The medical and technological fields have marched into brave new worlds rendering much of what older members of families can teach, redundant or contradictory to the latest research.
Should the baby sleep with the parents or in her own cot? When should she be weaned? What starter foods can cause allergies? There is a minefield of information out there, and for the new mother, it can feel like she is always just shy of setting off an explosion.
Women today have new and different expectations from their lives. Some of us are “liberated”, most of us remain subjugated to varying degrees, but all of us need to be having a loud, public, conversation about motherhood. What’s needed is to break the interiority of birth and parenting.
If we are at all interested in gender justice then “motherhood” needs to be dragged out of the home and into the public eye, so that it is seen, acknowledged and responded to by governments, employers and the wider public. This is not a conversation that only resonates in the West. And its relevance is not restricted to women, for these are universal issues that are usually, and wrongly, relegated to the sidelines.
Rather than being uncomfortable and shifty when confronted with issues of parenthood, men urgently need to be part of the conversation. Novelist Stephen Marche points out in an article in The Atlantic that the absence of men from discussions of work-life balance is particularly strange given how “decisions about who works and who takes care of the children, and who makes the money and how the money is spent, are not decided by women alone or by some vague and impersonal force called society.” They are in fact made by men and women and affect both equally.
So, here’s calling for all parents - mothers and fathers - to take parenthood out of purdah and into the clear light of day. It’s about time.